A few hundred people were crammed into Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, listening attentively to the man at the podium on June 3. There was a spirit moving through the sanctuary, a sense of elation and celebration. But, this wasn’t a Sunday sermon — this was a briefing on how to get arrested, and I had the feeling I was watching history repeat itself.
Every person in the pews of that church had decided that they were going to engage in the classic American tradition of civil disobedience. Cheered by a thousand voices, 151 people marched into the North Carolina General Assembly building on Monday, June 3 and around an hour later were led out to buses in plastic hand restraints. This is the story of Moral Monday, and how it’s making me reconsider my role in a social movement.
The North Carolina General Assembly has a Republican majority in both houses for the first time in over a hundred years. This political opportunity has unleashed an onslaught of legislation that has made the state fodder for political satire in the last legislative cycle. There have been bills restricting women’s reproductive rights, bills to legalize a state or county religion, a bill to institutionalize Voter ID disenfranchising many from the electoral process, a budget which cuts a billion dollars from education, and more of the same right-wing agenda that many states with conservative backlashes are facing. Currently, the state is working on repealing the Racial Justice Act of 2009, which allows for racial bias to be considered in death penalty cases. Just for emphasis — they’re repealing something called the Racial Justice Act. It’s not great down here.
In an effort to express the displeasure many were feeling, Moral Mondays were born. Organizers from the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP began rallying forces in late April for the first event on April 29, and they have kept growing. The number of arrests has climbed from tens to 150. The number of protesters rallying has passed the 1000-person mark (1000 according to security, 1600 according to event organizers). It has received national news coverage and spawned incredible videos and photographs. And, it’s still growing. On June 10 religious groups were the organizers and 80 more arrests happened, many of them clergy.
It has been an incredible experience to see it develop in my home state. The state that saw the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and has a strong history of civil rights activism. In the words of the NAACP chapter President Rev. William Barber, “This is the South. This is where justice was hammered out.”
These demonstrations are teaching us that there is still hammering to do, and I’m ashamed to say my generation isn’t pounding away like the rest.
When looking across the assembled people getting ready to walk into the General Assembly and preparing for arrest, you could see there were more retirees than college students. The people who were willing to sit in a holding cell for six hours on narrow benches in order to make a statement were the people who had already participated in this kind of political action before. From the 20 veterans who stood to rapturous applause to the Triangle Raging Grannies writing protest songs, an older generation was back on the front lines.
My generation, myself included, was present, but mostly as support. Our fear of future employability or somehow unsettling our future renders us incapable of actions that could get us in trouble.
The murmurs of the elder statesmen and women around me shared a sense of loss.
“I never felt like I would have to fight this fight again.”
“For the first time I feel like North Carolina is going backwards.”
“Never thought I’d be back protesting in my retirement.”
“I’m 80 years old, I want to enjoy my grandchildren, and instead I’m having to fight for them.”
These were the sentiments being bandied about by the older members in the crowd. They were certainly willing to spend an afternoon and evening making their displeasure known, but I couldn’t help but feel there was a desire to have a younger generation behind them.
There are arguments to be made from both sides about activism in the 21st century, about ways to be involved. Thousands of articles about digital activism, slacktivism, and 21st century apathy, but I don’t know if it’s that simple. The question of how to protest and make one’s voice heard today is still being answered, but my generation isn’t doing enough to help in that process. We may need to find our own ways to create consensus and destroy injustice, but we need to find our voice, because we can’t keep letting others do our fighting for us.
Follow Nathan at @nathan_nye